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Legal experts summoned by Democrats call Trump actions impeachable

Michael Gerhardt, professor of law at University of North Carolina School of Law, testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on December 4, 2019.
Michael Gerhardt, professor of law at University of North Carolina School of Law, testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on December 4, 2019. Tom Brenner/REUTERS

Constitutional law experts called by Democrats testified Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine represented impeachable offenses as the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee began proceedings expected to end in charges against Trump.

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The Judiciary Committee heard from the professors on what constitutes an impeachable offense and how Trump’s actions compare with those of two former presidents - Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned after the House launched the impeachment process, and Democrat Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House but not removed by the Senate.

The hearing featured political theatrics. From the outset, Republicans repeatedly tried to interrupt the proceedings by raising objections and points of order. One of the three professors called by the Democrats told the committee’s top Republican, Doug Collins, she felt insulted by his remarks.

A law professor selected by Trump’s fellow Republicans said that the impeachment inquiry lacked testimony from people with direct knowledge of the events and that current evidence did not show that Trump had committed “a clear criminal act”.

The focus of the current inquiry is a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation into former US vice-president Joe Biden, Trump’s potential rival in the 2020 presidential election, his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election.

Democrats have accused Trump of abusing his power by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine - a vulnerable US ally facing Russian aggression - as leverage to pressure Kiev into conducting the investigations politically beneficial to Trump and for granting Zelenskiy a coveted White House visit.

'Not even president beyond reach of Constitution'

The three professors chosen by the Democrats made clear they believed Trump’s actions constituted impeachable offenses.

“The president’s conduct described by the testimony embodies the (US Constitution’s) framers’ concern that a sitting president would corruptly abuse the powers of office to distort the outcome of a presidential election in his favor,” Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman told the panel.

University of North Carolina Professor Michael Gerhardt appeared to admonish Trump’s Republican allies for “leaving unchecked a president’s assaults on our Constitution”.

“If Congress fails to impeach here, then the impeachment process has lost all meaning, and, along with that, our Constitution’s carefully crafted safeguards against the establishment of a king on American soil. No one, not even the president, is beyond the reach of our Constitution and our laws,” Gerhardt said.

Stanford University law school professor Pamela Karlan said Trump abused his power by demanding foreign involvement in a US election, adding that the president’s actions “struck at the very heart of what makes this country the republic to which we pledge allegiance”.

Karlan said the evidence showed that Trump sought to “strong arm” Zelenskiy into smearing one of his rivals, adding, “This is not politics as usual - at least not in the United States or any other mature democracy. It is, instead, a cardinal reason by the Constitution contains an impeachment power.”

She pushed back at Collins for saying the witnesses could not have absorbed the evidence gathered in the inquiry. “I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts”, Karlan said.

George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley, the only witness chosen by the Republicans, said the current evidence does not adequately support the Democrats’ allegations against Trump.

Still, Turley admonished Trump over the call to Zelenskiy - disagreeing with Trump that the conversation was “perfect” - and said leveraging US military aid to investigate a political opponent “if proven, can be an impeachable offense”.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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